Artist Randolph Parker’s unwavering vision
Profile by Shelagh Plunkett
Randolph Parker has a great view. From where he stands you can almost see into the future.
At the window of his Salt Spring Island studio, the landscape painter gazes out at the foreground land dropping sharply to the shores of Ganges Harbour; in the middle distance the Three Sisters guarding the mouth of the harbour are backed by fingers of land and a snaking Active Pass; in the background the Cascade Mountains rise, punctuated by Mount Baker. Over all arches the dome of the sky and an endless show of atmospheric effects.
Turning away from the window and into Parker’s studio can be disorienting. Mountains soar above placid rivers, glaciers flow into icy lakes, prairie meadows stretch to foothills and staggered islands show meandering coastal passageways. Over all these landscapes arches the dome of the sky and a varied array of atmospheric effects beautifully rendered in acrylic paints. These are paintings ready to be shipped East for Parker’s two solo exhibits opening simultaneously in Winnipeg and Calgary the weekend of April 9 – 10.
“We are blessed here on the coast with a vastness of space which is rich in detail with ever-changing atmospheric effects,“ says Parker, adding “and I am lucky enough to translate it.“
Translation, interpretation, reflection, rendition; call it what you will, this guy is no illustrator. Decades of hard work, tireless fascination and constant observation have culminated ( for the moment, because his career is far from complete ) in Parker’s status today as one of Canada’s foremost landscape painters.
And there is a view in that as well; the long view. Like many artists,Randolph Parker can tell you that from an early age ( six years, to be precise) he wanted to be a painter when he grew up. Unlike most, however, the path he has followed from then to now has been relentlessly straight and without detour. When asked if he ever doubted his goal, his answer is a simple “No.“
As an example he tells a story…
Just out of high school, Parker took a summer job at a plastics factory in his hometown of Huntsville, Ontario. He worked so efficiently on the floor that the manager quickly promoted him to the office, where he did the payroll. The next summer the bosses called Parker into the meeting and made him an offer. They would pay for his tuition and expenses towards a degree in business, and during the summers they would place him in their various factories around the country so that he could get to know the company. In exchange for this generosity, they expected Parker to work for them (with pay) for as many years after graduation as it took him to complete his degree. Parker turned the offer down. It would have meant a ten year sidetrack from his true path.
“I accepted poverty. I knew that was inevitable,” says Parker. Fear of failure is part of what kept him focused for more than 30 years. “If you pursue a path for 30 years and you’re still not good at it, well, then you’re sort of out on a limb.”
Parker’s response to this was to drive himself harder and harder, especially in the early years when he says that he painted night and day. During those years he studied at Mount Allison University, Banff School of Fine Art and York University while his artistic path took him through styles ranging from complex engravings to thick impasto abstracts, from realist water colours to Capital Farmlands, a massive 4 x 16 foot landscape painted in 1991.
If he accepted poverty, he also knew, somewhere in his soul, it wouldn’t last forever. Parker was right. Today he lives the artist’s dream and it does not include starvation or a cold garret. Parker is one of the few Canadian artists paid in advance just to paint. Every month a cheque arrives from the galleries representing Parker, allowing him to concentrate on his work.
“They call me monthly and ask how is it going. I always tell them I’ve just come back from holidays. The truth is I work very hard and they have total confidence in what I will achieve.”
He explains this is also part of the long view. By working eight hours a day on his paintings, Parker is producing a large body of work that will one day, he hopes, fulfill its historic goal. Only then will future critics be able to see if Parker’s vision remained consistent throughout his career; only against a volume of work will they be able to analyse a given canvas and see how it relates to the whole. Only then will Parker’s paintings have a chance to become part of Canadian art history.
Achieving such a goal would be unlikely, says Parker, without the support of the galleries representing him. “These guys that I am dealing with, I am probably on board with for life. It’s a long term perspective where everything develops: the quality of the work, the income, their reputation in dealing with the work.”Seeing Parker’s canvases leaves no mystery as to why his galleries have made such a commitment to his future.
The views are stunning. These are not, however, depictions of actual places. Parker paints mythological landscapes, new territories that do not exist in the real world, those many who see his paintings think they have been to or know of the places rendered on canvas.
“I’m not painting an illustration of the view. I’m literally creating something new. The pieces themselves instil in the viewer the sense that they have been there.”
It is not realism that inspires this response from the viewers. Parker’s paintings, especially when seen full scale, do not fall into the category of realism. The pieces start off very loosely; layered washes are applied with a house-painting brush, then are worked slowly toward ever-greater detail. Despite this fine detail , however, the paint is never applied in a tight or obsessive fashion. Parker says even the tiniest strokes of his brushwork are in the manner of Chinese calligraphy, Each stroke is inherently a brush stroke, yet represents, simultaneously, something out there.
As with a good novelist that can suspend the reader’s disbelief, Parker applies his paint so skillfully, and his painted landscapes become so completely within themselves, that the viewer simply accepts the possibility that they represent actual landscapes. Parker uses photography to document real skies, mountains and plains that he later reflects on. Those reflections form the basis of his painted landscapes. The viewer is then taken on a visual journey through Parker’s unique worlds.
The complexity of the natural world has fascinated Parker for as long as he can remember. He recalls childhood fishing trips with his father during which Parker says he would rhapsodize on the way the sky was lit. “After fifteen minutes of talking about how things work, marvelling at the sky, I get the answer: We’re here to fish.” Though Parker’s father may not have been sidetracked, his son’s paintings do exactly that to the viewer. They lead into a world of Parker’s creation and bring the viewer to see and appreciate nature’s complexities. That, says Parker, is not his goal; it is simply what he does.
But “nature” in Parker’s painted world includes neither animals nor marks of human intervention. These are pure landscapes: there are no barns, no ferries, no roads or power lines, no planes, trains or automobiles in the imagined landscapes of Randolph Parker. If these were, he explains, the viewer would be captivated and distracted by those details. They might then not carry on in their journey through the landscape. Such details, says Parker, can inspire nostalgia. “I do not believe nostalgia has any place in a work of art. These pieces should stand alone. Nostalgia is just a way to sell something.”
Though they lack such comforting marks, such easy stop-offs on the journey, Parker’s paintings do not present cold or frightening views. Inspiring, awesome, majestic and inviting, they are never empty, despite the lack of habitation. These views hold the gaze indefinitely and, at their best, encourage an almost endless journey through the landscapes they present.
Though she’s never climbed a mountain like it, Shelagh Plunkett has walked the slopes seen in Ethereal Mountain Light dozens of times.
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